Tag Archives: Longworth

The Brigantine and the Submarine: How a P.E.I.-built sailing ship became part of a secret Royal Navy anti-submarine fleet.

When Robert Longworth’s new vessel was launched from a Grand River shipyard on Prince Edward Island in June 1865 no one could have imagined that more than half a century later she would play an important role in the Great War.

HMS Probus (ex-Tirza) under sail, circa 1917. Detail from W.L. Wyllie graphite wash. Royal Museums Greenwich Object PAE0058

Longworth, a Charlottetown shipbuilder and broker, named the new vessel the Thirza, a Hebrew name from the bible which could be translated as “she is my delight.” A small ship, she was only 104 feet long and 23 feet in breadth and displacing under 200 tons.  She was a rather plain vessel although with a figurehead featuring a female bust. The vessel was rigged as a brigantine: she had two masts — the foremast rigged with square sails and carrying a fore and aft rig on the mizzen.  This was a common rig for Island built vessels at the time as it required a smaller crew and was more maneuverable than either a schooner or a fully-rigged ship. Longworth clearly built the ship for sale in Great Britain and before she left the Island to sail across the Atlantic in August 1865  (probably with a cargo of timber) he empowered the Pitcairn mercantile firm in London to sell her for anything over £1,800.  A little more than a year later she was purchased by a number of men in Faversham, a market town in Kent, on the Thames Estuary downstream from London.

Thirza in an unidentified British port circa 1890.

The Thirza appears to have had an unremarkable history as a coastal vessel serving ports all around England for the next fifty years, carrying cargos to and from small harbours; coal, timber, bricks – anything that that was easier and cheaper to move by water rather than by rail. Her age was remarkable at a time when small sailing vessels were easily used up and was a testament to the skills of her P.E.I. builders and by the maintenance by her Faversham owners. Although remarkable the Thirza was not unique. In fact the Sela, another brigantine, which was built on the Island in 1859 was not broken up until 1976 after a service of 117 years.

HMS Probus . Detail from W.L. Wyllie graphite wash. Royal Museums Greenwich Object PAE0058

The Thirza’s life as a coastal trader changed following the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.  England was dependent on the continued sea borne commerce to supply her people and her war effort. The Germans were dedicated to disrupting the commerce and forcing Great Britain to its knees. Most histories of the was at sea focus on the destruction of large cargo and passenger steamers but the German Navy knew that fishing and coastal vessels were also essential to keep the British population fed and industries in full war production.

The great German weapon of the war was the submarine with its torpedoes and its ability to surprise its targets. However the submarines could carry relatively few torpedoes and they were expensive so captains held them back and whenever possible sank their victims with surface gunnery, especially when the vessels were smaller and slower ships incapable of fighting back.

One of the tools the British developed was to create disguised armed merchantmen which had the appearance of helpless vessels but which were in reality ships capable of sinking a submarine on the surface. These were known as “Q ships” named for Queenstown in Ireland where they were first put into action.

Sketch of the barkentine HMS Probus (Thirza). Note the Royal Navy White Ensign flown from the mizzenmast.  Charcoal drawing by Walter Rowley Murphy. Canadian War Museum Object # 20160592-001

The Q ship was an ordinary steamer or sailing vessel that had hidden armament. They were in effect decoy vessels set to attract U-boats. They out-gunned the deck guns of the submarines. The Q ships had elaborate disguises to conceal the weapons including false deckhouses and lifeboats behind which hid powerful guns. The crews wore civilian clothing and acted as merchant sailors when stopped by U-boats, even faking abandoned ship drills when threatened.

Sketch of 6-pounder gun on HMS Probus. Detail from W.L. Wyllie graphite wash. Royal Museums Greenwich Object PAE0058

In August 1915 the Thirza was purchased by the British Admiralty and became the HMS Probus. With a volunteer Royal Navy crew she served as a decoy vessel armed with two 12 pound guns and two 6 pound guns. To confuse the enemy she operated under several names including the Thirza, Elixer, Ready and Q-30.   June of 1917 found the Probus as part of a convoy of 12 sailing ships lead by one armed trawler. A sailing convoy requires a lot of sea room to prevent collisions  and the first 12 ships were spread across three miles while the Probus lagged 4 miles behind looking like a straggler.  The ruse attracted a German submarine intent on an easy kill. The U-boat was itself disguised as a ketch with a fake mast and sails and the Probus was soon under fire. Then dropping the pretense of a merchant ship the White Ensign was run up and the disguise for the guns removed and the Probus returned fire, hitting the submarine several times. The U-boat subsequently submerged. However the blow was not final and after about fifteen minutes it resurfaced and again approached the Probus. By this time the armed trawler from the convoy had turned and was approaching the area forcing the sub to flee. This was fortunate for the Probus as the wind had dropped making it almost impossible to work the vessel to windward and making her a sitting duck.  To add to her problems the propeller of her low powered auxiliary engine had become fouled in her log line and was effectively out of action. Although the U-boat escaped, the Probus had succeeded in luring it away from the convoy. The slow-moving sailing Q-ships were an effective escort for sailing convoys and allowed armed steam vessels to be employed elsewhere. In addition, the vessels carried freight as would a normal ship and paid for themselves over and over. It was not unusual for the Probus to earn more £1000 a month.

During the course of the war the British used upwards of 200 Q-ships, the vast majority of which were steamers, some of which were actually small warships such as Flower class sloops disguised as steamships. About 37 were sailing vessels.  The ships sank a total of 14 U-boats and damaged 60, but 27 Q-ships were lost in the war.

The exchange between the brigantine and the submarine was captured in a sketch and later an engraving by marine artist William Lionel Wyllie who also made other sketches of the vessel.

“Probus and the U-boat” graphite wash by William Lionel Wyllie 1917. Collection of Royal Museums Greenwich, Object # PAE 3149

After the war the Probus was returned to commercial service and her original name. She disappears from the registers in 1920 and was probably broken up.

Sources:  One of the most accessible histories of the Q-Ships and their successes was published in 1922. Q-Ships and Their Story was written by E. Kebler Chatterton  and was until recently out-of-print and has recently been re-published but thanks to the miracle of the internet is available on-line on the internet at:  Q-ships and their story : Chatterton, E. Keble (Edward Keble), 1878-1944 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. Details of the encounter with the U-boat are found at pages 186-189 of the volume.  For information about the British coastal sailing fleet (including several P.E.I. – built vessels) see Basil Greenhill. The Merchant Schooners. Naval Institute Press 1988.

Too Big for Success – The Paddle Steamer St. George

Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Advertiser 2 July 1842

Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Advertiser 2 July 1842

What had fourteen egg spoons, two paddles and over one hundred owners?

In 1842 Prince Edward Island was set to leap into the modern age. For far to long it had depended on either the winds or the kindness of strangers to provide the vital link with the rest of North American and with the Mother Country. It was time to Islanders to become masters (or at least crew members) of their own fate. A group of the leading merchants lobbied for legislation and at the spring sitting of the Legislature “An Act for the Incorporation of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company” was passed.  The legislation was one of the first acts in the colony to make used of the joint stock concept and limited liability for the owners so that their assets outside their investment would be protected in case of failure.  But how could failure occur? The need was clear. Northumberland Strait needed reliable transportation and Georgetown, Pictou, Charlottetown, Bedeque and Miramichi were all growing communities linked by the Strait.

Merchants, politicians, publicans and even clergy flocked to the company office to make their investments.  The leading merchants all signed up. Not just in Charlottetown but across the Island. The company owners came from Bedeque, Malpeque, Princetown, North River, Covehead, Tryon, St. Eleanors, Stanhope, Port Hill, Morrell. and to make sure that the general populace did not lose out the Government of the Colony took 150 of the 450 shares on offer. With the exception of one shareholder in St. John’s and one in England this was an all-P.E.I. company.

Since 1833 the Strait had been served by the Cape Breton, a steamer owned first by Pictou’s General Mining Association and later by Joseph Cunard and by the smaller Nova Scotia-built Pocahontas but neither appear to have been satisfactory. And besides they were owned off-Island!

If you are going to have a steam navigation company the first thing you need is a boat. Luckily Francis Longworth was going to England on other business and agreed to keep a look-out for one. He found one in the port of Liverpool.


This is not the St. George but is a vessel of similar size which was also operated in the Irish sea. The St. George would have looked much like this.

The St. George paddle steamer was just over ten years old and had an excellent service record. The  “large and elegant” steamer had been launched with much fanfare and before a large crowd of spectators from the Wilson and Sons yard at Cornhill, now part of Liverpool, on 21 November 1831. She was built for the St. George Steam packet Company which had an active service between Liverpool and Irish ports such as Dublin and Cork. The single deck vessel had displacement of 157 tons and was 135 feet long by 20 in breadth. The engines were built by Fawcett Preston & Co. of Liverpool. Its primary use was on the 120 nautical mile Liverpool to Dublin passage across the Irish Sea which took 18 – 20 hours.  The company added to its fleet throughout the 1830s and early 1840s with larger vessels and routes between the Uni9ted Kingdom and Europe. In 1838 the company’s ship the Sirius was the first steamer to cross the Atlantic.  Faced with losses it was later reformed as the City of Cork Steam Ship Company.  When Francis Longworth was searching for a vessel for the newly formed Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company in 1842 the St. George was on the market.  It was quickly purchased and the vessel was scheduled to leave Liverpool for St. John’s and Charlottetown on 9 July the same year, stopping at Cork for passengers.

The St. George,  “cheered  by the multitude,” arrived in Charlottetown on 14 August 1842 and was almost immediately pressed into service with the first trip to Pictou just a week later. Those who took the trips on the St. George were amazed at the luxury that the vessel provided. A partial list of the steward’s supplies gives a hint of how well-outfitted the ship was:  41 plated forks, 2 sauce ladles, 1 pair sugar tongs, 16 mattresses, 49 hair pillows, 36 feather pillows, 35 counterpanes, 8 crumb cloths, 77 sheets, 62 towels, 29 blankets etc. etc. etc..


Islander 17 May 1844

The Company had been set up with the assurances (incorporated into the incorporation act) that it would make regular stops at Georgetown and the rising town of Bedeque, the latter to be a stop on the regular semi-monthly trips to Miramichi which community was otherwise somewhat isolated from the main population of New Brunswick.


Within a year problems of managing the company with the government being a large minority shareholder began to emerge.  Georgetown had generated insufficient business either in passengers and freight to warrant continued service except at a great loss. At Miramichi “the almost total abandonment of the timber and lumber trade” had resulted in a reduction in the demand for trips to that port.  Business at Bedeque was no better and an 1845 report noted that on one trip into the port “the only thing in the shape of freight procured was a basket containing hens eggs”.    More significantly the hoped-for subsidies from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had not been forthcoming and the company had no guarantees that they ever would be paid.  The main problem was that the St. George was too big for the modest demands of the Strait communities and was too expensive to operate.  It was also the wrong sort of ship as the majority of the business was in passengers and only about one-sixth of the revenue from freight.

In 1843 the legislation was changed so that the company could abandon the Georgetown route. The Government bought out the shares of the Georgetown investors as well as the remaining unsold shares bring their investment up to over 40% of the company. It was suggested that the company could buy another smaller boat to serve the Georgetown route but that never happened.   A year later, the attempt to regulate routes was completely abandoned and the Company was empowered to decide their routes and schedules to be “most beneficial and advantageous for the interests of this Colony; and of the Shareholders”.

After limping through the 1844 shipping season with increased losses the Company came back to the Legislature pleading that with the St. George “the present traffic is scarcely sufficient to bear the expense of maintaining the vessel on station and she is altogether unproductive of profit to the shareholders and it is advisable that vessel be sold.” Since the government still held a large proportion the shares it was allowed that these could be sold at a loss and any proceeds used to acquire a smaller and more suitable ship.

Service was continued through 1845 at a continuing loss and with the increasing age of the ship and the need for major repairs fast approaching the need to get rid of the St. George became acute.  A search was begun for a smaller, faster ship which could be operated for less but nothing was found.   By October 1845 the St. George had been sold to Quebec interests and left Charlottetown for the last time at the end of that month.


Islander 4 April 1846

Although the Colonial Government advertised for a steamer to take the route it appears to have continued to be serviced by sailing vessels until 1849 when the Rose, a much smaller and perhaps more appropriate ship made its  way across the Atlantic.

The constraints placed by government ownership on the effective operation of the Steam Navigation Company  by requiring specific routes and schedules were certainly not the only challenge that the Company faced but they hardly contributed to success. It would not be the last time that government participation in a public/private partnership would lead to failure.
As for the St. George it lasted in Quebec only until 1850 when it was sold to become a towboat in Newfoundland.  In January 1852 it left St. John’s for Cork, Ireland and was never heard from again.

Note: An expanded history of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company is available as a detailed research paper which can be found here.